Talaiasi Labalaba BEM (13 July 1942 – 19 July 1972), who initially served in the British Army in the Royal Irish Rangers, was a British-Fijian Sergeant in B Squadron 22nd British SAS unit involved in the Battle of Mirbat on 19 July 1972.
Mirbat Castle, site of the Battle of Mirbat
SAS Hero: Tribute To Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba
Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba with Omani children in Oman
Labalaba, aged 30, was shot dead whilst firing a 25-pounder gun at the attacking guerrilla forces.
He displayed notable bravery by continuing to fire the 25 pounder single handed in spite of being seriously wounded when a bullet hit him on the jaw, after his Omani loader was seriously wounded early in the battle.
Captain Mike Kealy, fellow troopers Tommy Tobin and Sekonaia Takavesi ran a gauntlet of enemy fire but arrived too late to save Labalaba. Both the troopers were also hit,
Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba (left) and Sgt Sekonaia Takavesi (Right)
Takavesi was wounded in the back and Tobin was killed when a round crept through the sand-bagged walls and hit him in the face. Labalaba’s actions helped to keep the insurgents pinned down until Strikemaster jets of the SOAF arrived to drive back the attackers while reinforcements from Salalah could be organised.
BAC Strikemaster Mk82a
Fellow SAS trooper Roger Cole in his book of the battle, SAS: Operation Storm, paid tribute to Labalaba saying if the guerrilla force had taken the 25-pounder then the SAS would have surely lost the battle.
Labalaba was awarded a posthumous Mention in Dispatches for his actions in the Battle of Mirbat, although some of his former comrades have campaigned for him to be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. His body was returned to England and buried in the cemetery at St Martin’s Church, Hereford.
Grave of Sgt. T. Labalaba BEM, Special Air Service
Grave of Sgt. T. Labalaba BEM, Special Air Service
He was fighting a secret and brutal war in a dusty land far from home.
But while the 1972 clash between British forces and Communist rebels in Oman has long passed into history, the actions of Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba have not.
Instead, the Fijian soldier’s exemplary courage under fire places him high on the pantheon of SAS heroes
Labalaba is remembered to this day. Next month, a statue of the soldier will be unveiled at SAS headquarters in Hereford in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday.
And in a week when the British National Party was accused of appropriating the British military for their own ends – and airbrushing ethnic minority personnel from history – his story seems particularly poignant.
The sergeant and his nine-strong SAS unit were part of a clandestine mission to protect the Sultan of Oman from the People’s Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf.
By July 1972, they had been in the country for a year and the assignment – codenamed Operation Jaguar – appeared to be going well.
But then the rebels stuck back. On the morning of July 19, around 250 elite fighters stormed MIrbat, a small town on the Arabian sea, leaving the SAS pinned down inside a fort.
As his comrades fought an increasingly desperate battle to hold off 250 insurgents, it dawned on Labalaba, 30, that they were about to be overrun.
With no cover and facing certain death, he sprinted across 800 metres of exposed ground to reach a 25-pound field-gun.
It was a brave – but apparently futile manouevre – as the huge weapon took three men to operate.
That, however, did not deter Labalaba. Nor did facial injuries which would have rendered a lesser man helpless.
As British forces watched in astonishment, Labalaba turned the cumbersome gun on the enemy and opened fire at near point blank range.
Prejudice: Walter Tull was made a second lieutenant despite a ban on the commissioning of soldiers with ‘Asiatic or negroid features’
He went on for six hours, decimating the rebels and ultimately paying for his courage with his life.
His comrades found him slumped face down by the massive gun. His selfless actions undoubtedly saved many of the British soldiers holed up inside the fort and won him a posthumous Mention in Despatches.
For many, his statue will be a long-overdue memorial to one of the SAS’s greatest heroes.
It is also some small recompense to thousands of ethnic minority servicemen, many from Commonwealth countries, who feel their courage and devotion has not been recognised in the same way as their white counterparts.
Labalaba and his comrade Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi, a fellow Fijian who rushed to his aid after he was wounded, are two of the most celebrated examples.
But there are countless others.
Among those are Second Lieutenant Walter Tull, born in Kent but the son of a former Barbados slave, who volunteered for the army just a week after the declaration of World War One.
He survived many battles, was the first British Army black officer to take charge of white troops and eventually died on the Western Front in 1918.
Tull’s career, however, was blighted by prejudice.
Despite being recommended for the Military Cross for ‘gallantry and coolness under fire’, he never received it.
Senior officers had defied a rule which prevented soldiers with ‘Asiatic or negroid features’ being commissioned to make Tull a second lieutenant.